Prayer. Often the word triggers guilt. For some, it sparks warmth, and for others, nothing. No warmth, no guilt. Flat. It’s a vaporous word that appears and vanishes without meaning.
Prayer is one of the most prominent themes in Scripture (occurring several hundred times), yet it is one of the most neglected practices in the church. Why the chasm between prominence and practice?
Well, if guilt springs to mind when we think of prayer, why should we let prayer come to mind? Keep the guilt at bay. Fend it off. We respond to guilt in two main ways: Action, to assuage our conscience, or inaction, to deny guilt’s entry into our conscience. Make up for the guilt or try to make off without it.
We might guiltily pray, filling journals and prayers with endless words. Or we might try to ignore it. If we’re prone to making up for failure to pray, our reasoning might go something like: “I’d like to pray (not true), but I’ve got so much to do today.” We ignore prayer (inaction), in order to focus on something that doesn’t produce guilt—like work or service (action)—in hope that guilt will go away. I’ve tried both.
I used to feel guilty when I didn’t pray. If I didn’t make it through my prayer list or spend half an hour in solitary prayer, I’d feel guilty for not praying more.
There is a guilt that’s from God and a guilt that isn’t. Guilt 1 is associated with shame. Shame defines you by your guilt. You’re an utter failure, a spiritual sloth. Guilt 2 is associated with conviction. Conviction defines you by your relationship with Christ. It calls you to be who you truly are in Christ. It appeals to the deep longings of the Spirit, who stirs us to pray (1 Cor 2; Rom 8; Jude 1). Guilt 1 presses us down. Guilt 2 lifts us up. Guilt 1 says you’ll never pray enough. Guilt 2 says Christ is praying for you right now, join him! Shame drives us into a corner; conviction drives us to Christ.
Somewhere along the way, I was liberated from prayer-by-shame. Part of this liberty came when I realized that God doesn’t relate to me based on guilt but based on grace. Grace reminds me that when I was guilty of deep distrust in God and his promises, Christ died and kept God’s promises to absorb my guilt, so now I have every reason to trust. Grace reminds me that God relates to me based on what Jesus has done, not on what I have not done.
Why Did Jesus Pray?
Jesus prayed—a lot. This is weird when you consider the fact that he is God, until we begin to understand prayer. When prayer becomes more concrete, we become more prayerful.
Why did Jesus pray? Jesus prayed for God to rescue people: disciples, enemies, and sinners. He taught his disciples to do the same (Luke 6:28; 10:2). Jesus also prayed because he was incredibly dependent on the Father: “The Son can do nothing on his own accord” (John 5:19). “I can do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (John 8:28). In the words of Paul Miller, “Jesus was the most dependent human that ever lived.” Jesus prayed because he knew how dependent he was – and how dependent we are – on the grace of our heavenly Father. Why should we pray? Because we are incredibly dependent on the Father and because we want God to rescue people.
Dependence-driven prayer isn’t a sign of weakness, per se, but a sign of love. Jesus prayed because he loved his creation and his Father. When I read Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17, I can feel the warmth licking off the page. Jesus didn’t address him as “God” but as “Father.” Prayer wasn’t an exercise in guilt removal; it was a communication of warmth. If you read John 17, you can feel Jesus’ longing to be with his Father “in glory” once again.
Because Jesus loves the Father, he does God’s will by sharing the words of eternal life with his disciples. Sensing the profound satisfaction that eternal life will bring them, Jesus says: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (11). Jesus prays that we would join in his oneness with the Father, that we would know their love and warmth. He elaborates (was this necessary?): “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (23). Jesus prayed because he loved being with the Father, and he prays for us because he wants us to enjoy being with the Father. Prayer is an expression of love for the Father and for one another.
Drawing Near to God
In the words of James, prayer is “drawing near to God” (4:8). Abraham Kuyper clarifies love for God as drawing near to God when he writes: “To have love for God is a different and a much weaker thing than to be able to say:’ I love God.’” Many of us “have love for God” but have trouble saying, with sincere conviction, “I love God.” We live with what we love. If we love God, we will live with him in prayer. If we love entertainment, we will live with it in prayerlessness. May I be so bold as to say that our mornings and evenings are marked by what we love? If we lay down to Netflix and rise up to Internet, could it be that we love distraction more than we love God? Perhaps, in an unconscious way, we drift to entertainment because it distracts us from guilt. Guilt will drive you into a corner, but it will not drive you to Christ.
Prayer is about love not about lists. It is about drawing near to God, not about impressing God. It is about enjoying his grace not enduring guilt. In fact, our genuine guilt for loving something altogether more than we love the Father is gone in Christ. God so loved us that he sent his only Son to be cut off in death so that we might be wonderfully united with him in life. Prayer is a response to the Father and the Son; it is a warm reaction to what they have together done for us. Prayer is communion with God, a cementing of souls together in a common delight, in this case, a delight in God and his grace towards us in Christ. It begins and continues with honest words about our loveless lives, our guilt-ridden approaches to prayer, and a shameless embrace of God’s reckless love and grace.
Respond to his love, even now. Turn and receive his grace. Don’t let your guilt drive you into a corner but to Christ. As you receive his love and grace, respond by saying: “I love you God.” Then, you have prayed.
Jonathan Dodson (M.Div, Th.M) is happy husband to Robie, and proud father to Owen, Ellie & Rosamund. He is also the lead pastor of Austin City Life church and directional leader for PlantR and Gospel Centered Discipleship.com. Jonathan is also the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship (Crossway, 2012). He blogs at jonathandodson.org, enjoys listening to M. Ward, watching sci-fi, and following Jesus. Twitter @Jonathan_Dodson